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Addictive Habits from Hell

Not every addiction springs forth from a vice. People tend to feel strong or powerful when they engage in gambling or drugs, or use mindless computer gaming and binge drinking to numb out emotionally painful memories. While these may start off with no ill intentions, it may lead you dangerously down the path of addictive behaviours.  It’s even tougher for men, says Associate Professor Munidasa Winslow, 53, a pioneer in addiction and impulse control disorders. 80% of addictive behaviour sufferers are male, warns the good professor. “They are generally more driven by activities to get high or numb out, whereas women tend to turn their emotions inwards and have higher rates of depression and anxiety.”

Be wary of these nine common bad habits that males in Singapore are prone to:



It seems perfectly normal to down a glass of wine or two at the end of a long work day, but that might actually be a sign of an addictive behaviour. Also, be careful when you take on one drink too many when entertaining clients for work, as it may lead to a bad drinking habit over time. Dr Thomas Lee, consultant psychiatrist and medical director of Resilienz, finds alcohol addictions at his clinic most common among male professionals between 20-50 years old.



These can refer to both illegal substances like ecstasy, and prescription drugs like benzodiazepines (sleeping pills) and cough mixture (codeine-containing). “Either way, it’s the pleasurable effect in the brain from using these substance addictions that motivates continued and repeated use of it,” Dr Calvin Fones, psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital, explains. But be warned that the problem with drugs is how the brain adapts to repeated use and becomes less responsive, thus invoking a greater dosage of it to maintain the same pleasure.



Cigarettes, like alcohol and coffee, are readily available, and are legal substances for adults to use. Thus, it’s not surprising that incidences of addiction occur more commonly. It is pretty alarming to learn that about seven Singaporeans die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each day (according to the Health Promotion Board). People know the effects of smoking, yet 4.5% of the population (mostly men) were found to suffer from nicotine dependence, stated the Singapore Mental Health Study 2010.



Mike (not his real name) chopped off his left little finger in a desperate attempt to deter himself from gambling after he lost a massive $300,000 in a week. However, that did not stop him and he slid further into his addiction. Obsessed with finding money for football betting, he even resorted to misappropriating company funds, losing his job in the process. He then tried his luck at illegal gambling dens, but started to borrow from banks, friends and loan sharks to try and recoup his losses. Increasingly frantic to raise cash, he sold off his car and apartment, and moved his wife and kids into a rented flat. But instead of clearing his debts, he gambled away the money to the extent of loan sharks hounding him, which led to his family walking out on him. Dr Lee describes this as a gambling disorder, an addictive brain illness where an excessive gambler loses control over his behaviour and hits rock bottom. Through counselling and medication, though, Mike eventually recovered, reconciled with his family and repaid his debts. There was concern when the two integrated resort casinos in Singapore were built, giving people ease of access to gambling. We have heard horror stories of people going bankrupt from visiting these places, and it doesn’t help that credit cards can be conveniently used for online betting. Angeline Voon, senior counsellor for the National Addictions Management Service (Nams) at the Institute of Mental Health, says: “Unhelpful cognitions such as ‘I can stop anytime I want’ or ‘I can influence the outcome of my bet when I gamble’ or the desire to seek immediate gratification are risk factors.”



The urge to masturbate multiple times a day is a cause for worry. So is the need to watch pornography, especially if you’re married. Worse effects of a sex addiction can even lead to frequent one-night stands or extramarital affairs, says Prof Winslow. Dr Lee treats compulsive masturbation and sex most, having helped some who need to have sex at least four times a day. The explosion of sexual content across various media platforms and easy access to pornography is not helping things.



This allows one to escape from reality into virtual worlds, where they can take on personas in the form of avatars, making it harder to quit as the characters develop or grow in strength. This affects kids, teenagers and young adults most, as they see it as a way to kill time or cope with stress. Secondary Two student Ryan (not his real name) was brought to Nams by his mother for his excessive cyber gaming. He was withdrawn, his grades were declining and he was already repeating the level. Initially, Ryan’s gaming was confined only to the weekends, of just Maple Story and World of Warcraft. But when he attended a new school at the age of 13, he had difficulties adjusting to his new environment and had few friends. He resorted to playing truant and spending more time on the computer. The more his parents tried to confront him about his excessive gaming and poor academic performance, the more Ryan retreated into the gaming world, where he felt powerful and accepted in virtual reality. When the computer was removed from him, he became very agitated and had difficulty sleeping. Eventually, through counselling and treatment, Ryan’s behaviour improved and he has reduced his gaming time. PC gaming at Internet cafes or at home is one type of habit, but did you realise that playing games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds on your smartphone or tablet is counted as addictive behaviour, too? Chong Ee Jay, assistant manager at Touch Cyber Wellness, which provides counselling services on cyber wellness issues, found that about 95% of gaming addicts are males between 13-25 years of age. They reach for their phones whenever they have spare time, like when waiting for the bus, or set up their iPad next to the PC so they can check on their game, which might involve waiting for a crop to harvest.



“Addiction to the Internet is on the rise, too,” says Dr Tan Hwee Sim, specialist in psychiatry and consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre, “due to increased accessibility. The emergence of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have also led to a new kind of addiction.” People can spend extended hours on their computers, tablets or phones just surfing the Web. There are several things one can do online, Ee Jay explains. “The Internet can be used for gaming, shopping, content-surfing like reading blogs, watching porn or Youtube videos, or constantly checking social media accounts.”



The emergence of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has also led to a new kind of addictive behaviour, such as obsessively checking for new likes and comments, and feeling a sense of satisfaction when the post receives lots of attention. Some feel the need to post something every day, be it a selfie, photo of what they’re eating or a repost of something interesting they read. Others enjoy scrolling through their news feed to see what people are posting.



Are you guilty of constantly checking your phone for no real reason? Do you feel anxious when you’re separated from your smartphone? You might be suffering from nomophobia – the fear of being out of mobile-phone contact, and looking at your phones first thing upon waking up and just before sleeping. Such bad habits are closely linked to being addicted to social media and social communication platforms such as WhatsApp or Line, Ee Jay adds. He states that young working adults (26 years and above) tend to check their mobile devices every five to 10 minutes for work-related e-mails or texts, before checking Facebook and Instagram for likes, comments or what others are doing.


By Cheryl Tay, Men’s Health, January 2015

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